“…I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
— Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem
My older son, Aidan, and I were chatting the other night about my relationship with Baum-kuchen. Though we’ve never had the opportunity to meet Wakako, Frido, and their daughters face to face, we feel as if we’ve known them, as dear family friends, for years. His questions prompted me to go through the archives to find the first essay I’d written for the BK Love Letter. It is dated May 24, 2016, over five years ago. It is titled “On Keeping My Notebook,” a nod to Joan Didion and her similarly titled essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which can be found in her essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I discovered it many years ago as an undergraduate, and I have returned to it many times over the years. My 2016 essay begins with one of my favorite quotes from Didion’s essay, which is repeated at the start of this essay as well.
I would like to think that, after repeating these words so many times and supposedly embracing her sentiment, I have followed her advice. Though, after taking the time to read my own five-year-old essay, I found that I could barely recognize myself. The notebooks that are photographed in that essay look like notebooks that belong to someone else, and I find it hard to believe that the systems and setups described were once ones that I used on a regular basis. Why did that version of me find it necessary to have such complicated life management systems? What was I/she feeling at the time? What was I/she going through?
In 2016, that version of me was mother to 13-year-old and 8-year-old sons. I was separated from their father and had been for nearly two years. I was struggling in every way that a person could possibly be struggling, but I was also trying to create a positive, nurturing, and upbeat home environment for my sons. I was trying to do it all. And I was afraid. I was terribly afraid that I would fail, and that if I did, I would fail in meeting the responsibility of raising my children the way I’d always imagined raising them. As afraid as I was, I wanted to appear fearless, and I wanted it to look like I had it all together. And my notebooks reflected all of that — the micromanaging and everything looking just so, to mask the fear and uncertainty that I felt and experienced on a daily basis.
Thankfully, in that same essay, I mentioned that there was no right way to keep a notebook and that my way of keeping one may not work for everyone. I hope that people took that literally because some of my coping skills aligned with my particular fears and struggles. Years later, after experiencing hardships, tragedies, and triumphs, I find myself living a much more fulfilling, richer, and more stable life with a much simpler notebook/system. Even though my life is so much better and I feel so much stronger, I hardly feel that I am in the position to tell anyone else how to keep a notebook. The wiser I have become, the less I know for certain. My 2016 self would probably find my 2021 notebook to be a mess and without structure, yet find my 2021 life to be enviable and my 2021 self to be fortunate and joyful. While my 2021 self finds my 2016 notebook to be far too fussy and neat, my 2016 life to be a struggle, and my 2016 self to be courageous and disciplined.
What is my point? I believe it is remarkable how easy it is to forget who we once were.
MY CURRENT SETUP
I still love analogue tools as much as I ever did, and I still use a notebook every single day, as I have since I was nine years old. I am not sure that notebooks take on lives of their own, as I wrote in 2016, but I do think they reflect the souls of their owners. I think our magic comes from within.
My current setup still serves several purposes:
- To help me stay organized in my daily life; though, I use digital calendars with notifications and alarms.
- To give me a place for planning and dreaming big. I’m still doing that.
- To provide me with a place to remember the wonderful things that happen in our lives, for which I am so grateful.
- To provide me with a safe place to process my feelings and grapple with things big and small, not so serious and serious. More and more, I have been able to spend time reflecting on external factors, like social, cultural, and political issues.
I carry one A5 Zip Organizer by The Superior Labor, though I have several. I only use one notebook in it at a time, and I carry an assortment of items that change as my needs change. Everything that I carry makes me laugh, smile, or serves a practical purpose. I still write on
grid-ruled paper, though I no longer strictly use refills from Traveler’s Company. I love trying different brands these days. I still always write with a fountain pen, as I have since I was twelve. I always use black ink, even though I’ve managed to collect some other colors. My “system” is more like a non-system, as it is largely unstructured and ever-changing but mostly unstructured
and very simple. I have a lot of bits of scrap paper stuck in pockets and sticky notes stuck here and there. I allow myself the freedom to jot down whatever I need to jot down without a lot of rules and specific formatting. I no longer record what I’m grateful for each day, as gratitude is an entire lifestyle now. I am grateful for so much every single moment of every single day.
Perhaps most importantly, I still think personal writing is an amazing practice that enhances my well-being, but I realize it works differently for different people.